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Reverie on a pair of Japanese screens

July 1, 2001  |  By Michael R. Cunningham; from the Magazine ANTIQUES, July 2001

The idea of landscape in the West has historically been aligned with geography. The appearance of a given earthbound place in a painting or photograph normally initiates for the Western viewer an immediate response of physical orientation. We wish to understand the particular environmental conditions and perhaps the terrain of the place. Using personal experience, we gauge what it might hold in store for the actual-or the imaginary-viewer: its air, light, dampness or dryness, the presence of other beings, and so forth. Customarily, we associate ourselves with being there, feet on the ground, prepared for the elements and the delight or challenge of the site. Even if other, more evanescent qualities-such as light-constitute the central feature of a landscape image, as in some seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, we still inevitably parse the landscape setting in order to orient ourselves topographically so as to better understand the special characteristics of the image before our eyes.

In Japan, by contrast, from a rather early time, landscape served other purposes in the visual arts. Geographical locations provided nomenclature for identifying the domains of auspicious native deities, who before the arrival of Buddhism did not possess anthropomorphic form. Later, place names provided continuity of historical consciousness for political as well as social groups. Geographical locations came to share a deep kinship with the history of human events recorded as taking place within their boundaries, and it is the character of these events, rather than a description of the topographical features of the place, that matters in traditional Japanese art. Attempts to describe the rich fabric of human circumstances framed amidst the natural forces of a landscape lie at the heart of landscape painting in Japan. And the appropriate encapsulation of such a singular event and its human consequences enables that event to stand for something considerably more potent than the mere event itself.

Auditory imagery and visual imagery possess a profound and enduring relationship in yamato-e, the classical and traditional style of Japanese painting, one already formalized at the Heian era (794-1185) court in Kyoto, where poetry competitions were a regular part of life. At court gatherings, sheet of paper inscribed with successful poems were actually pasted onto folding screens (byōbu). Indeed, landscape screen of particular sites, frequently replete with seasonal imagery, often served as the primary source of departure for these poetry contests. Human transience constituted a central theme of many poems, which more often than not were melancholy in sentiment yet framed in lush landscapes of hope. While modern viewers might be offended by the practice of covering painted imagery with sheets of paper, it was customary and appropriate at the time and, more importantly, fostered subsequent developments in the visual interplay of word and image in Japanese art.

As this occurred through subsequent centuries, poetic anthologies from the Heian past became codified, and thus were readily available to visual artists for incorporation into their work for patrons well read in these classics. One such text, the tenth-century anthology known as the Ise monogotari (Tales of Ise), was a cornerstone of the literary tradition, as familiar as Shakespeare is to a modern Western audience. The Ise consists of some 125 narrative episodes, at the heart of each of which is a poem. The association between one poem and the next appears rather informal, even casual, which the narrative commentaries do little to compensate for. Nevertheless, the Ise had a profound influence on literature and the visual arts for centuries. Although its authorship is uncertain, it has traditionally been considered a kind of biography of the poet-courtier Ariwara no Narihira (825-880), as well as an elegant, nostalgic evocation of court life in the Heian period. Of imperial lineage, Narihira possessed exceptional literary talent and was renowned at court as a handsome, well-accomplished lover.

The Ise enjoyed a particularly enthusiastic revival about 1600 in Japan, most notably among the newly rich merchant class who aspired to aristocratic trappings and taste. It was popularized through illustrated woodblock-printed texts of varying degrees of lavishness in the first two decades of the seventeenth century as well as serving as the subject of more contemplative images, such as the extraordinary byōbu shown in Plates I and II. At the heart of the composition is a poem from episode twelve of the Ise:

Musashino wa             (Do not set fire today)

Kyo wa na yaki so       (To Musashino Plain)

Wakakusa no      (For my beloved husband)

Tsuma no komoreri     (Is hidden here.)

Ware mo komoreri      (And so am I.)

Musashino is located west of present-day Tokyo, not far from Mount Fuji, with which it was frequently linked in visual and literary imagery in the Edo period (1615-1865). In Heian times Musashino represented a primary symbol of exile, untamed nature, and a decided lack of courtly elegance. Travelers to the region characteristically pined nostalgically for Kyoto, the capital, or as in this poem, appropriated the rustic setting as a metaphor for circumspect behavior: In the poem, provincial officials threaten to set fire to the plain in order to flush out a thief, who is, in fact, the narrator's lover, not her husband.

The byōbu represent a creative approach in which a few commonly recognized visual motifs are incorporated into a fresh and original composition. Since byōbu had played an active role in the presentation of classical poetry in the Heian period, such "modern" interpretations were also recognizable as the inheritors of the earlier, accepted tradition of narrative representation.

The byōbu can be dated to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century by virtue of their palette and compositional schema, which reflect Momoyama period (1573-1615) aesthetics. Viewers at that time would have recognized these features as well as the conscious evocation of a poetic mood identifiable with a single Ise episode. The byōbu present a lush, dense field of grasses, undergrowth, and wildflowers. Each blade of grass is individually delineated, and each sheet of gold foil affixed to the support papers provides a varied but cohesive network of visual stimuli. Cumulatively, the effect is one of subtle opulence, as if some kind of golden sunlit fog had rolled over the landscape. At ground level, the artist employed deep mineral pigments to fashion the scrubby undergrowth out of which emerge the wildflowers and suzuki grass. The structure of the flowers is nearly invisible. Instead their dark leaves form wavering ascendant patterns, which stabilize and highlight the clusters of muted white flowers. The plants seem to grow naturally as they compete for light in the dense field.

Crucial to fully comprehending the scene are the blades of pale green grass with their flowering pale yellow tassels. It is autumn, the season of passage toward death in the topography of human life and nature. Moreover, at the left the moon, a large silver disk now darkened through oxidation, rises silently-it is evening. Still the untended flowers bloom. The anonymous has constructed several layers intended to convey the theme of the transitoriness of life. All sentient beings must succumb to the inevitable cycle of life mirrored in the natural world.

The knowledgeable viewer understood the references to the autumn grasses that hid the lovers, as well as to Musashino in the repertoire of poetic places linked the autumn moon and Mount Fuji. The act of interpretation becomes the more natural and more pleasurable as the composition's painterly lyricism is uncovered. The resonance between the library and the visual elements guides the viewer toward a deeper, and more delicate, appreciation of the artist's achievement. This becomes particularly apparent when thesebyōbu are compared with other seventeenth- and eighteenth century screens, whose more literal presentations ultimately diminish their appeal.

In the end, the Japanese viewer sees in these radiant screens an inviolable idea evoked by a specific poem revered over centuries. Embedded in the poem are elements of history and geography, and of human frailty. When the woman and her lover hidden among the grasses are threatened by exposure, simultaneity of beauty and sadness arises. A viewing of the screens contrasts a basic awareness of human fallibility with the sublimity of time and nature. The picturelike landscape is a beautiful creation, an imagined space of delicacy and golden light wherein viewers recollect the past and, in the process of doing so, create the present moment- however transitory. Ultimately, landscape is not spatial but rather temporal in character.

 

MICHAEL R. CUNNINGHAM is the curator of Japanese and Korean art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

 

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